Why Internal Motivators, Not Rewards, Will Reap Long-Lasting Benefits for Kids

It’s time to rethink rewards. There are much better ways to get your kids motivated.
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Illustration by Zhen Liu

Rewarding children for a desirable behavior or activity works well. But is it the best method? Maybe not. When children are offered a prize for reading books, they may choose easy books and read just enough to trigger the reward—but they won’t develop a life-long love of reading.

The problem is that rewards are external motivators (EMs), and children are more likely to complete a task—and repeat it—when we engage their internal motivators (IMs). Research shows that when children expect a reward, their performance and their creativity are reduced. Children are initially motivated by the payoff, but because rewards don’t impact a child’s beliefs or emotions about the task (like learning and behaving), their long-term motivation can be diminished. Psychologically, rewards make play seem like work. Moreover, if the reward is meaningless, like a trophy for everyone who plays on the team, it actually dampens long-term motivation: Why should Sarah work so hard if Joey got a trophy for minimal effort?

We expend significant parental effort getting kids to do chores and homework, practice skills, and use positive behaviors. Children are innately motivated to do tasks for four reasons: enjoyment, a sense of purpose, mastery of a skill, or to feel connected. With a little creativity, you can capitalize on these internal drives to move them in a positive direction.

Rewards can work if they are unexpected and the task is short-term or dull, like potty training. However, IMs should be your first choice. “Rewards lose their shininess,” says Amy Murdoch, Ph.D., of Mount St. Joseph University. “The idea is that we will eventually fade external motivators away so they become internal, so kids can have those life skills to operate as adults.”

Activating Internal Motivators

Murdoch collaborated with us on these inspiring ideas:

  • Focus on the task and the “why” first. You need to learn times tables in order to strengthen your brain and do harder math later. Or, we’re collecting toys for homeless kids.
  • Give a choice about how, when, and where, like studying or reading under a tree.
  • Create short-term manageable goals.
  • Be their coach. Give specific feedback; express confidence they can do it; praise their effort and the strategy they used.
  • Use activity rewards. Practice/work for 20 minutes, then you can do a concert for your stuffed animals/me/neighborhood kids. Celebrate—don’t reward—good grades with a family activity.
  • Join your child. Help them with review questions and flashcards; have them teach you a skill or explain how it’s done.
  • Introduce novelty. Write spelling words with chalk on the sidewalk; add silly flashcards that say JUMP or DANCE; use blocks to illustrate math facts; recite times tables while jumping rope.
  • Make work seem like play. Make up a silly song to go with the task; count how many items you can put away in five minutes; clean up a space for another favorite activity.
  • Praising their character over their actions helps them internalize it. You are a responsible/thoughtful/hard-working person. Share stories about people you want them to emulate.

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